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Biden promised to halt building Trump's border wall — but new construction has begun


President Biden has been criticized by people in both parties for his handling of the border. On the day he took office in January, he signed a proclamation that paused construction of Donald Trump's border wall. Since then, most of the barrier has been halted. But new construction has begun on 13 miles of border wall in Hidalgo County, Texas, to the dismay of some locals. NPR's John Burnett reports.


JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Here along the twisting Rio Grande, just south of McAllen, crews began building a new border wall this summer, and it continues apace. Longtime anti-wall activist Scott Nicol thinks it's great the Biden administration halted construction elsewhere along the 2,000-mile border.

SCOTT NICOL: They should stop building walls here, too. You know, people are losing their land for this wall. And the wall is completely useless both in terms of flood control and immigration enforcement.

BURNETT: We're standing on a levee road one sweltering morning watching crews pour concrete into molds 18 feet tall. The wall will be topped with steel bollards six feet tall. They're now calling them guardrails. Customs and Border Protection says this is not a continuation of Trump's border wall. It's actually a levee wall to patch the original earthen levee that was damaged by Trump's wall contractors. But my recent visit to the construction sites seems to confirm what critics are saying. Excavators and bulldozers were tearing out undamaged levee that's only 10 years old.

NICOL: They're basically using the excuse of levee repair as a loophole to continue building walls because the levees were all repaired in 2011 using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money.

BURNETT: That checks out. President Obama spent $19 million to build up the Hidalgo County levee to FEMA standards.

EVERARDO VILLAREAL: I mean, we had a perfect levee. It actually did the work that it was supposed to do during one of our last hurricane events.

BURNETT: That's County Commissioner Everardo Villareal, who represents this area. He believes the government's border levee wall is completely unnecessary. CBP said in a statement to NPR that the earthen levee provided inadequate flood protection, and the new levee wall will address life, safety and environmental requirements. In a June press release, though, the agency acknowledged that there was money left on the table that it had to spend. CBP is, quote, "legally required" to use money that Congress earmarked for Trump's border wall for its appropriated purpose. Again, Commissioner Villareal.

VILLAREAL: Obviously, you know, the decision that was made to build this border wall wasn't our decision. Obviously, it created issues for a lot of our residents here in this area.

BURNETT: One of those aggrieved residents is Rey Anzaldua, a 76-year-old former customs agent whose family owns a scenic campground along the Rio Grande.

REY ANZALDUA: We don't need it. We have a levee. We don't need a wall. So it's a bunch of malarkey that they're saying that they need a wall to protect the citizens. It's not true.

BURNETT: Earlier this year, a condemnation lawsuit against the family property prevailed, and the government seized six and a half acres of the intact levee for the massive new levee wall. It is one of dozens of land confiscation lawsuits that are still pending in federal court in South Texas. Anzaldua had thought if they could just hold out until Biden won the White House, he would cancel the project, and they'd be in the clear.

ANZALDUA: He said not one more for the wall, and no more land confiscations. As you can see, Biden didn't keep his word.

BURNETT: CBP will not say how much the new border levee wall is costing. Congress originally set aside $330 million for this 13-mile section. That works out to a breathtaking 25 million a mile. Commissioner Villareal, a Democrat, shook his head. Hidalgo County has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. Do we really need a $300 million concrete flood wall, he says, that doesn't make the county any safer? John Burnett, NPR News, McAllen, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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